Saturday, December 13, 2014

Fog-filled Grand Canyon

From Vox:

What'd You Say The Breakeven Price on Shale Oil Was?

This month's Director's Cut from the North Dakota Industrial Commission:
Sep Sweet Crude Price = $74.85/barrel
Oct Sweet Crude Price = $68.94/barrel
Nov Sweet Crude Price = $60.61/barrel
Today Sweet Crude Price = $41.75/barrel (lowest since March 2009)
(all-time high was $136.29 7/3/2008)....
Rig count in the Williston Basin is set to fall rapidly during the first quarter of 2015.
Production was level from last month to this month.  The next few months might be very interesting.

Mid-December Weekend Links

Stories for the weekend:

How Japan Built The World's Best Horse Racing - Deadspin

Larry Bird's Greatest Shot Was the One He Didn't Take - Indianapolis Monthly

Egg Market Disrupted in U.S. as Cages Made Roomier: Commodities - Bloomberg

Milk prices are about to fall big time - Farm and Dairy. Maybe that will offset the more expensive eggs.

The Dark Side of Donkey Basketball, and In American Southern Literature, The Mule Must Die - Modern Farmer.  It is Donkey week at Modern Farmer.

New Aluminum 'Foam' Makes Trains Stronger, Lighter and Safer - Wired.  Pretty cool shit.

A Coal Plant That Buries Its Greenhouse Gases - MIT Technology Review.  Cool, but I don't think it is commercially viable.

Livin' Thing: An Oral History of 'Boogie Nights' - Grantland.  It's Paul Thomas Anderson week at Grantland.

19 Secrets of UPS Drivers - Mental Floss

20 Maps That Never Happened - Vox

California drought, visualized with open data - USGS.  Very cool.

Mike Pence lays out vision for a presidential campaign. But will he be a candidate? - Washington Post.  Mike Pence isn't the smartest man in any room.  How pathetic will the 2016 race be?

The Architect of the CIA's Torture Program - Vice News.  What a fucked up mess.

The War Hero and the Chicken Hawk - Timothy Egan.  Dick Cheney should be on trial in the U.S., or failing that, at The Hague.

The rise of rich man's subprime - Fortune.  On loans against portfolios.

Unemployment and Inflation - Pieria.  It's Minsky's world, and we're just living in it.

The Vanishing Male Worker: How America Fell Behind - New York Times.  Also, see Why America's middle class is lost - Washington Post

Cool maps show where all 4 college football playoff teams get players from - SBNation

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Life at the Top

Some people have way too much money:

From Drought to Deluge

Scientific American:

The San Francisco Bay Area is getting flooded with relentless rain and strong winds, just like it did a week ago, and fears of rising water are now becoming very serious. Major news stations, weather channels, Web outlets and social media are all suddenly talking about the “atmospheric river” that is bringing deluge after deluge to California, as well as the coast of Washington. What is this thing? How rare is it? And how big of a threat could it be? Here are some answers. And see our graphics, below, taken from a brilliant and prescient feature article written by Michael Dettinger and Lynn Ingram in Scientific American in January 2013.
Not interested? In 1861 an atmospheric river that brought storms for 43 days turned California’s Central Valley into an inland sea 300 miles long and 20 miles wide. Thousands of people died, 800,000 cattle drowned and the state went bankrupt. A similar disaster today would be much more devastating, because the region is much more populated and it is the single largest food producer in the U.S.
So maybe 1861 was an oddity. Not really. Geologic core samples show that extreme floods like the one in 1861 have happened in California about every 200 years, since the year 200 A.D. So the next disaster could be coming around the bend. The West Coast has actually been slowly constructing large, specialized, meteorological observatories that can sense atmospheric rivers as they develop, so forecasters can give early warnings.
An atmospheric river is a conveyor belt of vapor that extends thousands of miles from out at sea, carrying as much water as 15 Mississippi Rivers. It strikes as a series of storms that arrive for days or weeks on end. Each storm can dump inches of rain or feet of snow. Meteorologists sometimes call small occurrences “pineapple expresses,” because they tend to flow in a straight line from around Hawaii toward the U.S. West Coast. The graphic below explains the details.
God help the Sacramento River delta if the levees were to fail. Real-time weather data here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Warriors, Not War Criminal Cowards

Unlike the Bush administration, these guys wouldn't resort to torture, because they had actually fought wars and weren't chickenshit cowards. 

There is a special place in Hell for all the lying, torturing scumbags involved with the CIA "interrogation" operations.  They'll never see justice in a nation where one political party is pro-torture, and the other is too scared to rock the boat and prosecute the lowlifes who continue to pretend that they got anything useful from breaking out the Nazi playbook on their powerless captives.  What a difference a generation makes.

Farmers Better Be Careful

The business-friendly Republicans may be in charge of Congress, but Bloomberg isn't buying the opposition to the Waters of the United States rule:
The signs of deteriorating water quality are particularly acute in agricultural areas. For example, the Des Moines, Iowa, water works is having trouble controlling the amount of nitrates in local drinking water. This pollutant exceeded permissible levels of 10 milligrams per liter in one of the utility's main water sources, according to a September letter from water works manager William G. Stowe to the Des Moines Register. Nitrates are especially toxic to infants and at that level can cause blue baby syndrome -- a form of oxygen starvation.
Des Moines's water system spent an additional $1 million in 2013 to filter out nitrates, Stowe wrote, and costs will inevitably rise. The reasons for the contamination are clear: Farms in Iowa and elsewhere can skirt regulations to control the runoff of noxious chemicals derived from fertilizers into rivers. As Stowe wrote:
The intensive corn-soybean cropping system that occupies much of our watersheds `requires' massive amounts of fertilizer applications and agricultural tile drainage to maximize yields. Application of unlimited manure from growing animal feeding operations and commercial fertilizer and the ease in transporting these pollutants to our rivers through drainage systems has significantly, and increasingly, degraded water quality.
Until industrial agriculture is no longer exempt from regulations needed to protect water quality, we will continue to see water quality degrade and our consumers will continue to pay.
 The new rules seek to address the loophole. They would ensure existing regulations apply to protected bodies of water, limiting how much pollution is allowed and establishing a permitting process so that industry would have clear guidelines to establish waste outflows.
Opponents seem to have forgotten that the EPA's proposed rules were initially sought by agricultural interests, real-estate developers and state and local governments as a way to clarify regulatory ambiguity, caused, in part, by a pair of Supreme Court rulings. Waters of the U.S. would use technical and scientific analysis to say where the Clean Water Act applies and where it doesn't, including rivers and streams where farms now discharge polluted runoff....
It's a shame that rather than seeking an honest discussion, some opponents are relying on a misinformation campaign that contains gross distortions and outright falsehoods. To cite a few:
-- Every ditch would be subject to EPA oversight, as would puddles on homeowners' driveways and schoolyard playgrounds.
-- The rules give the federal government control of all farming and real-estate development.
-- The enforcement of the rules would amount to the biggest land grab in U.S. history.
If you want to see a corrective to this hyperbole, the EPA has developed a page of rebuttals called "Ditch the Myth."
Regrettably, and perhaps predictably, the House of Representatives heard the plaints of industry. In September it passed the Waters of the U.S. Regulatory Overreach Protection Act -- the title is self-explanatory -- which would block the rules from formal adoption. The bill passed with almost all Republicans in favor and most Democrats opposed.
Farmers couldn't choose worse people to partner with than idiot Republicans.  If they aren't careful and don't get their shit together (literally, in the case of manure management), they will end up facing a serious regulatory burden.  Situations like the algae incident in Toledo this summer make farmers look really bad.  Being stupid about regulation makes them look even worse.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Buried In Corn

Erica Hayasaki tells the story of Will Piper, who survived being trapped in a grain bin while two of his friends perished:
It felt like an 80,000-pound semi-truck had parked on Will Piper’s chest. He could still breathe, just barely, but his body and neck were encased in corn, and the kernels kept falling.
For two hours, 20-year-old Will had been trapped in corn bin number nine, on a grain storage facility in Mount Carroll, Illinois. It was July 28, 2010, and Will had started his morning at work, cleaning the grain bin with two of his buddies, Wyatt Whitebread, 14, and Alex “Paco” Pacas, 19. Now both of his friends were submerged, and probably dead, though Will did not want to admit that yet.
Bin number nine was 118 feet in diameter and about as tall as eight grown men stacked one-by-one atop each other’s shoulders. It could hold around 500,000 bushels of corn, and today it was about half full. From close up, the kernels were crumbled from recent rains, greenish and moldy, like decaying teeth. Inside of the bin the kernels had fused together, caking up the sides like walls of honeycomb. The air smelled like rotten potatoes.....
In a pool or river drowning, a person inhales water, which floods the lungs and replaces air. The water permeates through the bloodstream, depriving the body of oxygen, seeping into the red blood cells, which break apart.
In a corn drowning, pressure from the kernels on the rib muscles and diaphragm can become so intense that they prevent any breath at all. Instead of drawing in air and releasing it by expanding the chest, everything gets compressed, forcing the rib muscles to exhale unnaturally, with no more ability to inhale. The air that is already in the lungs gets trapped, unable to get out. And more air can’t come in. This is called compressional or traumatic asphyxia.
The second deadly part of a corn drowning comes from suffocation—the kernels that block the mouth and nose. There is an overpowering urge and desperation to inhale, but it’s impossible. A terror-filled one to two minutes follows. That’s how long it takes to lose consciousness from lack of oxygen to the brain....
In a pool or river drowning, a person inhales water, which floods the lungs and replaces air. The water permeates through the bloodstream, depriving the body of oxygen, seeping into the red blood cells, which break apart.
In a corn drowning, pressure from the kernels on the rib muscles and diaphragm can become so intense that they prevent any breath at all. Instead of drawing in air and releasing it by expanding the chest, everything gets compressed, forcing the rib muscles to exhale unnaturally, with no more ability to inhale. The air that is already in the lungs gets trapped, unable to get out. And more air can’t come in. This is called compressional or traumatic asphyxia.
The second deadly part of a corn drowning comes from suffocation—the kernels that block the mouth and nose. There is an overpowering urge and desperation to inhale, but it’s impossible. A terror-filled one to two minutes follows. That’s how long it takes to lose consciousness from lack of oxygen to the brain.
Read the whole thing.  The damn shame is that everybody knows that walking grain is very dangerous, but yet:
This year is expected to be the deadliest for corn drownings since 2010, when 31 people died in 59 grain-bin entrapments, according to Professor Bill Field, who for five decades has documented such accidents as part of Purdue University’s Agricultural Safety & Health Program. On average, children and young men under age 21 make up one in five grain-bin accident victims.
It's just stupid that this happens so often.  More on grain bin deaths here.

Ralph Baer, Father of Video Games, Dies

Ralph H. Baer, the man widely acknowledged as the "father of video games" for his pioneering work in electronics and television engineering, died on Saturday at his home in Manchester, N.H. He was 92....
As the New York Times describes it, it was a sultry summer day in 1966 when Baer — who was working as an engineer for defense contractor Sanders Associates, now part of BAE Systems — scribbled out a four-page description for "game box" that would allow people to play action, sports and other games on a television set.
One Sanders executive saw potential in Baer's idea and gave him $2,500 and two engineers to work on the project. Over the years they churned out seven prototypes in a secret workshop, before landing on a version that Baer and Sanders would use to file the first video game patent in 1971.
The "Brown Box" was licensed to Magnavox and went on sale as the Odyssey in 1972 — the world's first video game system. The primitive system was all hardware and used "program cards" for games. Plastic overlays for the television screen provided color. Priced at $100 (though Baer had recommended $19.95), the Odyssey sold more than 100,000 units its first year and 300,000 by 1975.
When Atari's Pong debuted just months after the Odyssey went to market, Sanders and Magnavox sued them for copyright infringement. The case was settled for $700,000 and Atari became an Odyssey licensee. Over 20 years, Magnavox won more than $100 million in patent lawsuits involving the Odyssey, according to the New York Times.
Baer went on to hold more than 150 U.S. and foreign patents for his inventions, including everything from talking door mats and an automatic tone arm for programmable record players. Among his other famous inventions was the electronic memory game Simon, which he created with Howard Morrison, that went on to be a pop sensation and is still sold today.
My aunt had an Odyssey, and I would watch her and her friends play it.  I don't remember ever getting to play it, but it may have been that I did, and I only really remember all the times I wanted to play it and didn't get to.

Here's a video profile of Baer from 2012.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

NASA Photo of the Day

December 6:

Orion Launch
Image Credit: NASA, Bill Ingalls
Explanation: Headed for two orbits of planet Earth and a splashdown in the Pacific, Orion blazed into the early morning sky on Friday at 7:05am ET. The spacecraft was launched atop a United Launch Aliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Its first voyage into space on an uncrewed flight test, the Orion traveled some 3,600 miles from Earth, about 15 times higher than the orbital altitude of the International Space Station. In fact, Orion traveled farther into space than any spacecraft designed for astronauts since the Apollo missions to the Moon. The Orion crew module reached speeds of 20,000 miles per hour and temperatures approaching 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere about 4.5 hours after launch.

Activist Investors Vs. The Timkens

The New York Times has an interesting profile of the division of Timken into separate bearing and steel businesses:
Crunching reams of data in search of undervalued stocks, analysts at Relational Investors, a firm that manages $6 billion mostly on behalf of pension funds, happened upon a Canton company called Timken, which was in the unglamorous business of making steel and bearings. Controlled by the Timken family for more than a century, the company looked cheap compared with its industrial peers, at least according to Relational’s analysis. A few more calculations suggested that Timken’s shares might fetch more if the company were split in two....
The heart of the Calstrs/Relational argument was that the two companies should trade as pure plays, with investors deciding for themselves whether to bet on the faster-growing but more volatile steel business or the more mature but highly profitable bearing business.
Timken executives fought back, making the case for keeping bearings and steel under one roof. Bearings require specialized steel that can, for example, withstand enormous pressure deep underwater in an offshore oil well. The metallurgical expertise the steel unit acquired in creating these advanced materials, they said, translated into products for other customers like medical device makers and drillers.
There were other structural reasons for the two companies to stay together. Because the steel business can be very profitable but is much more volatile, the bearings division served as ballast for the combined company. Excess cash from the bearing side smoothed out those peaks and valleys and helped pay for big investments like the huge caster.
But Mr. Larrieu and Relational maintained that if the money couldn’t be invested in the business now or in the foreseeable future, it should be returned to shareholders, who are, after all, the owners of the company...
Although Mr. Timken is on the board of the new bearing company, its chief executive is not a family member. And the new management seems to be hewing more closely to the activists’ playbook.
Buried in a November Timken investor presentation is a chart bound to please Wall Street. Titled “Yesterday and Tomorrow,” it sketches how capital was allocated before the split, and how it will be used now. Pension fund contributions drop from nearly a third of cash flow to near zero, while capital spending is roughly halved. And instead of using 12 percent of cash flow to buy back stock, share repurchases will consume nearly half of cash flow over the next 18 months. In other words, less cash is being invested in the business or earmarked for benefits to employees, and more money is going to investors. While TimkenSteel’s board has authorized a three million share buyback by the end of 2016, Timken has plans to repurchase 10 million shares by the end of next year.
Even if TimkenSteel and Timken manage to avoid a takeover for the time being, the separation is likely to make both firms more vulnerable over time, said Suzanne Berger, a professor of political science at M.I.T. who researches globalization, innovation and production.
Not only will they both be less financially nimble than before, she said, the steel maker in particular will lack the scale to invest and innovate the way it could under the old corporate structure. Foreign steel makers in Asia and Europe are vastly larger, and face much less pressure for short-term results, enabling them to pour more money back into their businesses.
“In the microcosm of Timken, you can see the larger forces playing out in manufacturing in America,” said Ms. Berger, who studied the company for a 2013 book she wrote, “Making in America.” “It’s not classic greed, like ‘Barbarians at the Gate.’ But we’ve set up financial markets in a way that’s injurious to long-term investment and industrial companies.”
“We’ve got a financial system in the U.S.,” she said, “where California teachers have to protect their pension funds by hurting manufacturing in Ohio.”
Goddamned MBAs and the "world's dumbest idea," the belief that corporations' only goal should be to maximize shareholder value, have ruined our country's economy.  The Timkens have run their business the right way, and a bunch of outsiders looking for an easy score have come in and fucked everything up.  Just reading about the plans for the bearing company lead me to believe that it will be a shell of itself in the not-too-distant future.  It's also telling that Ward Timken decided to stay on the steel side of the business.  The fact that the outside investors didn't understand the obvious connection between the steel business and the bearing business makes me think they don't know their asses from a hole in the ground.  If you want to know why our manufacturing economy has been dismantled in the past 40 years, you don't have to look beyond this story.  As much as I wish that more American workers had pensions to rely on, it is the financial decisions made by giant pension funds that are at the heart of the rise of the belief in maximizing shareholder value.  That has been terrible.

Columbus Tunnel Project Sees Unexpected Challenges

Water and a giant hunk of bedrock 200 feet beneath Columbus has bogged down the city’s giant boring machine, leading to a two-year delay and a $29.5 million cost overrun.
The machine, nicknamed “Marsha,” is boring a 4.5-mile, 23-foot-wide tunnel that was originally to be completed this month. The tunnel is supposed to catch sewer overflows that would otherwise spill into the Scioto River during storms. The project was originally estimated to cost $342 million....
The $26 million custom machine, like something out of science fiction, was built to drill through mostly dry bedrock. But city engineers’ estimate of water levels didn’t account for millions of gallons of water that travel underground, below the Scioto River.
Instead of grinding through dry rock, Marsha was choking on a water/rock/mud mixture called slurry, which is kind of like wet concrete.
The 500-foot-long drilling machine is a cross between a submarine and a huge mechanical worm with a 95-ton cutting wheel on the front. The machine was built in Germany to digest dry rock by sending it back through a crushing screw shaft in its belly, depositing the crushed rock on conveyers that take it to the surface.
The Kenny Construction Co., based in Illinois, and the Japanese-based Obayashi group designed Marsha based on specifications provided by the city....
Marsha was to be able to drill through and remove about 68 feet of dry rock a day, or about 40 feet a day if there was water. The steel cutters on the machine have to be replaced about every 500 feet.
But the unexpected amount of water in the ground forced it to remain closed. The pipes weren’t big enough to handle the slurry because large chunks of rock would make it through the grinder.
For much of the past two years, Marsha has drilled about 25 feet per day.
At one point when the cutters needed to be replaced, the city had to hire expert divers for $1 million. The divers could work only for minutes at a time in the high-pressure underground water to replace the cutting wheels.
Davies said engineers then spent nearly a year reconfiguring Marsha with new, larger pipes and ripping out the conveyer system to add another large screw that would break down the rock even more.
Dax Blake, an engineer and the city’s sewers and drains administrator, said the city had drilled about 200 holes to test the ground before the project began.
“You never really know what’s that far underground, so all we could do was take those samples and calculate out what was down there,” he said.
 Wow, 200 test holes is a bunch.  I bet some engineer is feeling pretty bad about this project.